Recalculating

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Last week, David and I were in New Orleans. He was presenting a paper about disagreement and rational belief. I was being a tourist. And we both got to see a dear old friend from David’s grad school days. Back in the 1980s, we were all very close. He dandled our daughter when she was a baby, and David and I flew across the continent to be at his wedding. But we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, and have only sporadically kept in touch.

One afternoon, while David was presenting his paper, Martin and I went sightseeing. Since it was Martin’s first time in New Orleans and my third, he deferred to me. I suggested taking the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District. David and I had done that the last time we’d been in town, maybe 20 years earlier. We had walked down leafy streets lined with beautiful old homes, and explored a cool old cemetery.

I kept my guide book and map in my bag, as Martin and I caught up. But as our streetcar rattled past stately houses that looked like the neighborhood I remembered, it occurred to me that I was the tour guide. After a quick check of the map, I yanked the bell, and we hopped off at the next stop.

Looking back at the map, it was easy enough to find the cemetery. There was a grey rectangle filled with crosses on Washington Avenue, just a few blocks away. We blithely headed off in that direction, happily chatting about my son’s job and his daughter’s high school.

But something wasn’t right. The buildings we were passing were much more modest than I’d expected. Paint was peeling. Porches sagged. Yards were strewn with litter. In another block, more and more houses were more than neglected. They were abandoned. One was boarded up, the plywood spray-painted with a black x. I remembered seeing photographs of those markings after Katrina. They were FEMA’s way of showing which houses they had searched, and whether they’d found bodies. But that was seven years ago. And now, between the broken houses, we were passing empty lots. And where were the people? Not a single car had gone by since we’d turned up the street. And other than one old man sitting on a stoop and a group of young men standing on a side street, we had hardly seen a soul.

“I’m not sure about this neighborhood,” I told Martin.

“It seems okay to me,” he said. “But I’m Canadian, so you’re probably more culturally attuned.”

When someone questions my instincts, my automatic response is to doubt my judgment. And I know that travel plays havoc with my instincts. Being in a new place, removed from my routine, observing my surroundings through the lens of my camera, makes the world seem romantic. Unreal. This air of unreality can convey a false sense of immunity.

So why couldn’t it also do the opposite—create an exaggerated sense of danger? Could I be unconsciously guarding against a  false sense of security by putting myself on higher alert than was justified?

And was something else going on here? Martin and I are both white, and the few people we had seen since turning off  St. Charles Avenue were all black. How much of my unease was being fueled by latent racism? This last question made me even more uneasy, and cast doubt on all my instincts.

“It’s just a few more blocks,” I told Martin, and we continued.

One block up and across the street, we reached a patch of green surrounded by a tall fence. A sign on the fence said Lafayette Cemetery #2. I tried to square what we were seeing with what I remembered. Had that chained link fence been there? With that barbed wire? Had the gate been padlocked? Was the grass that overgrown? The mausoleums that decrepit? The whole place such a wreck? Cemeteries are supposed to be sad. This was a whole different level of sadness.

We walked back toward St. Charles on the opposite side of the street.

“Are there any dominoes down there?” A man called from a balcony.

“No,” I called back without thinking. Then I noticed the men sitting around a table in the yard, and felt like a fool. But no one seemed to have heard me.

A few doors down, a woman said, “Excuse me.” She was sitting on a porch with a few other people, and she was definitely talking to us. “Would y’all like a dog?” Or maybe she said puppy.

It was a little dog, on a leash. Schnauzer? Terrier? The kind of dog a certain kind of person carries around like a fashion accessory, and dolls up with an argyle vest or a silly bow. This dog wasn’t dolled up. Its fur was matted and filthy.

They had found the dog wandering around, and couldn’t keep it, the woman was saying. Would we take it?

We couldn’t. “It looks like a nice dog though,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright,” she answered. She may or may not have told us to have a nice day. Either way, I felt as if she had.

When we reached St. Charles Avenue, we figured out our mistake. The cemetery we’d wanted, the one the guide books promote and tourists flock to, is also on Washington Avenue. But on the other side of St. Charles. Literally, the other side of the tracks. We had been looking for Lafayette Cemetery #1, and had found Lafayette Cemetery #2.

Back in Rhode Island, I did some research. The neighborhood where we’d been walking is called Central City. “In mid-2006,” I read, “the area was considered the most dangerous part of the city.” After Katrina, I learned, Central City became notorious as a place where rival gangs and drug dealers exchanged gunfire in the streets. The crime rate has gone down since then, but Wikitravel advises that the neighborhood is still “not recommended for casual visitors.”

So my judgment was correct. But was it justified?

That afternoon, I didn’t know anything about crime hot spots. I just knew that after we crossed St. Charles Avenue, we entered a different world. Lush trees lined the streets. Impeccable gardens surrounded stately homes. Everything was opulent, clean and well-kempt. Cars and pedestrians quietly came and went. Just about everyone we saw was white. And I felt perfectly safe.

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2 Responses to “Recalculating”

  1. R.L. Saunders Says:

    Beautifully said. New Orleans aside, I think about this kind of thing a lot. Thanks for this.

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